Genre work: ‘How’ vs ‘what’ questions in the sociology of music culture

Publication Name

Sociological Review


The established conceptual frameworks in the sociology of music largely name forms of social collective, albeit emphasising different characteristics. ‘Scene’ and ‘neo-tribe’ are the principal contemporary examples of this. In this article, we describe scene and neo-tribe as conceptual responses to what questions (What kind of sociality is this? What kind of cultural context is this?). We engage critically with scene and neo-tribe, and with the underlying logic of sociological explanation which posits and then answers what questions about social collectives as the best means of accounting for social practices around music. We do this to advocate sociological enquiry into music via how questions, suggesting that such questions have a specific sociological trajectory which presents underexplored opportunities for the sociology of popular music. To this end, we introduce and describe the concept of ‘genre work’, to investigate how musical development and social groups are co-constituted through the same social processes and dynamics. We argue that scene and neo-tribe tend to background the empirical processes (and the music) around which their respective research agendas are oriented. Genre work and similar approaches, in contrast, seek to document and analyse the discourses, interactional forms and mediated and co-present activities by which genres and the social groupings interested in them are mutually cohered.

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